Roseanne, Gender Bending, And The War Against Nature

Roseanne is back on television and to great success. The pilot for the renewal of the twenty-year old series did so well in the overnight ratings that season 2 has already been picked up. Most of the attention has focused on the fact that the show, which features the working-class Connor family has Trump supporters in it. What I have not seen discussed, however, is that Darlene (one of the original kids in the series) has a child of her own, Mark played by Ames McNamara whose character is presented as preferring to dress like a girl. Mom is divorced and Grandma (Roseanne) and Grandpa (played by John Goodman) are torn. They love Darlene and Mark but they know that sending him off to school dressed like a girl is bound to create problems and, of course, it does.

It is in the nature of sitcoms to create and resolve tension. In that tension is both pathos and comedy and the writers, actors, and actresses portrayed it well. They helped us to empathize with a young who clearly needs attention, who apparently does not have a father active in his life and who gets attention by being, as they say now, transgressive of social norms. The show also captured the natural impulse of a single-mom to defend her child and struggle of Grandma and Grandpa to try to fix things.

As I watched the episode I wondered to myself how many elementary-aged boys in this country are now dressing like girls. This NYT article from 2012 caused a stir when it was published because it claimed that it is perfectly normal for boys to be “gender fluid” and to cross-dress. Of course that is utter rubbish but it was re-assuring not to find a flood of related articles in the interim signaling that this is a major trend. Still, that ABC decided to explore this theme in a mainstream television series is worrying.

As a parent, I worry about young children in the entertainment business generally and the emotional and psychological effects of playing a child with “gender dysphoria.” As attractive as this device is for the writers, how is it not propaganda or social catechesis? We are apparently being told that the new normal is that it is perfectly acceptable for nine-year old boys to wear dresses to school and that anyone who expresses concern is a bigot.

The underlying message is that social norms are completely arbitrary and should be transgressed. The problem is that it is true that some social norms are relatively arbitrary but not all are. In 2011 an article in The Smithsonian reminded us that it was common in the 19th century for boys to wear something like a baptismal gown (FDR is pictured in his) until as late as 6 or 7 years old. The author also observes that pink and blue as assigned to girls and boys is a relatively recent and commercially driven convention. During WWII women went to work in factors and wore trousers.

It is important to distinguish between social convention and nature but not everything is a convention to be deconstructed. Nature remains. The differences between boys and girls cannot be reduced to social constructs. Boys and girls are obviously different biologically, even if it is not currently fashionable to say so. As a boy of 56 years, a brother to two sisters, the husband of one wife, and the father of two daughters, my experience is that there are real, innate differences. We experience the world differently. We relate to others differently. One recent Stanford study concluded that the differences are not entirely cultural constructs.

Christians confess that there is such a thing as creation and a creational order. Scripture says, “Then God said,

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26–28).

Both of the first two humans were alike in certain ways and distinct in certain ways. They were both image bearers but they were so in complementary, not identical, ways. I am sorry that recognizing this complementary relationship has been associated with “patriarchalism” and manifestly heterodox ways of speaking about the doctrine of God and Christology (e.g., the alleged “eternal subordination of the Son”). By acknowledging that males and females were created to be distinct and complementary to each other I mean to signal no support for “patriarchy” or ESS. I do mean to say, however, that there is a creational pattern and that as part of that creational pattern males and females are different and complementary in obvious and in less obvious ways.

How should we express those creational differences in dress and carriage? That is a more difficult question that it might seem but it is not impossible. Growing up in the 1960s, in the plains, in Middle America, long hair for boys was an act of rebellion against what the hippies called “the bourgeois” values of that place and time. It was controversial. It was true that it was difficult sometimes to tell the boys from the girls and all the more so in the wake of World War II, the Korean War, and in the midst of th Vietnam War, when the crew cut signaled support for America against various enemies and long hair on boys signaled questions about the war. Today, however, it is not unusual to see men with pony tails and even “man buns” who are not obviously being “transgressive” of gender norms. He probably drives a pick up, however, (or a Jeep) and not a Miata or a VW Bug (there is a reason that designers put a flower vase in the new Bug—I write as the former owner of a 1960 VW Bug, a “New” Bug, and a Miata. As water always finds its level, the differences between sexes find a way to the surface.

Even though trousers are now unisex (and in some places in America have long been) dresses remain feminine. Yes, Scottish men wear kilts, which one writer calls “hyper-masculine” but that does not seem like quite the same thing as dressing a nine-year old boy in clothing and make up (e.g., toe nail polish) associated with females. Does anyone think of the kilt as feminine? Pink and blue may be arbitrary signals of sex but it seems reasonable to be troubled by a parent, whether real or fictional, who, rather than directing the child toward an appropriate expression of their natural sex, encourages “gender bending” or even “gender dysphoria.”

Will Roseanne address the consequences of single parenthood for (the character) Mark’s development? Had he a relatively normal Dad perhaps he would not feel the need to dress like a girl? Is not interesting that even after Obergefell, after the Department of Education sought to normalize transgender behavior among school children, that the writers think that we need more catechesis about how normal it is for boys to act and carry themselves like girls?

The Apostle Paul Speaks To This Question

Above we began thinking about the implications of a mainstream television show presenting a cross-dressing child as a character. Here we want to consider how the Apostle Paul responded to the confusion of the sexes in Greco-Roman paganism.

The first thing we need to realize is that the Apostle Paul was a theologian of nature as well as of grace. This is a category and distinction that is either unknown to or rejected by most American evangelicals. This is unfortunate because the loss of this distinction makes it more difficult for us to understand Paul on his own terms, in his setting. Further, it removes from us an important way to think about Scripture more broadly, about ourselves as image bearers (theological anthropology), about our eschatology, and about life in the here and now. One source of hostility to this distinction comes from those who (whether they know it) are influenced by the Anabaptist tradition(s), which saw nature (creation) less as something to be affirmed and more something to be obliterated by eschatology. The medieval theologians (if we may generalize for the sake of a brief, popular essay) saw nature as inherently defective, something that, by virtue of its inherent flaws, needed the remedy of grace even before the fall. In reaction to this approach to nature and grace, some, particularly those influenced by neo-Kuyperianism, have decried what they describe as “the nature/grace dualism.”

There is a third approach, however, represented by traditional Reformed theology. The older Reformed theologians affirmed the inherent goodness of creation (as had the Fathers and as did the orthodox medieval theologians). They recognized that the fall corrupted nature, especially human nature, and spoke about grace as “renewing” human nature into the image of Christ. They unashamedly distinguished between nature and grace however. They unabashedly distinguished between that which is “secular” (which they did not use prejudicially) and that which is “sacred.” Both spheres or categories they saw under the sovereign providence of God.

They affirmed both categories, nature and grace, in light of the creational narrative wherein God is said to have created all things good. Thus, in Heidelberg Catechism 6, the Reformed churches confess, “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.”

According to the Reformed churches (not that all the theologians spoke exactly the same way), our fundamental problem was not nature. It was not finitude. Our problem became sin. We did not sin because we were created. Why we sinned freely in God’s good and holy garden, after being created in righteousness and true holiness” is a great mystery but it was we and not God who sinned. We and not God introduced corruption and death into the world.

We also saw the distinction between nature (creation) and grace in Romans 1:18–2:15, where Paul prosecuted all humanity for their violation of God’s holy law, which was revealed in the garden and which is known by nature.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Rom 1:18–20; NASB).

All humans know, by nature, that God is. They know that he is eternal and divine, They know that he is a judge and that they are liable. They perceive that much from nature and reason. When Paul said “but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21) and “claiming to be wise, they became fools” he seemed to be reading the same news reports as you and I.

His standard of justice was God’s moral law revealed in nature, including the conscience. Notice that, as part of his prosecution of sin, he appealed to the existence of the category of “natural [sexual] relations:”

…for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error (Rom 1:26b–27; NASB).

Paul was aware of Lesbianism in the ancient world. In some places, he was surrounded by open homosexuality. Lesbianism, he wrote, is contrary to “natural” (φυσικὴν ⸀χρῆσιν) or “creational” (heterosexual) relations. Likewise, he wrote, men left behind “natural relations” (same phrase) for homosexuality. It is not just that male and female homosexuality are contrary to the laws revealed to Moses in the Torah (the first five books of the Scripture) but they are against nature itself.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan port city where pagan sexual immorality was on open display. Paul was not a monk. He worked with his hands (as a tent maker) in the market. He saw the world for what it was. In his letters to the Corinthian church he specifically addressed the problem of the confusion of the sexes. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 he wrote:

Or do you not know that the unjust (αδικοι) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Neither will you who deceive (πλανασθε) nor the sexually immoral (πορνοι) nor idolaters (ειδωλολατραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοι), nor the effeminate (μαλακοι), nor homosexuals (αρσενοκοιται).

I translate μαλακοι as “effeminate” because of the way it’s used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures) for the “soft parts” and is used elsewhere in the sense of “effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Corinthians 6:9″ (BAGD, s.v.). [See the link below for the original context of this paragraph].

The sort of effeminacy listed here confuses the natural heterosexual roles. The prefix “hetero” means “other.” It denotes the complementary, opposite sex. It blurs the line between male and female. It is “gender bending.”

We see similar concerns in chapter 11. Considering how Christians were to conduct themselves in public worship, in the apostolic period, in Corinth, Paul wrote that when men pray and prophesy (leaving aside exactly what that was) they ought to do so with heads uncovered (1 Cor 11:4) but women, when they do the same (remembering the apostolic setting) ought to have their heads covered (v. 5). For all the attending difficulties in reconstructing exactly what was transpiring there is a clear implication that the sexes are not to be confused for one another. There is a case to be made that such confusion was at the root of the problem. One of my colleagues argues that it was common in the pagan religions of the period for worshipers to be hooded. In such a setting one cannot discriminate the sexes. Paul will not have it. In the succeeding verses he grounded his argument in the creational order, that males and females are distinct. They have an ordered, reciprocal relationship. In v. 14 he again invoked nature: “or does not nature herself teach you…?” (οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς). In that case he was arguing that for a man to wear long hair like a woman is a disgrace (v. 15). In our culture we are tempted to dwell on the question of the length of the hair but Paul’s interest was to reassert the natural, creational difference between males and females.

For Paul, grace does not obliterate (wipe out or cover over) nature. It remains a fixed category alongside grace. In grace and by grace, in Christ, by the work of the Spirit, who gives us new life and true faith, our human nature is renewed yet it remains. In the New Heavens and the New Earth, human nature (not to speak more broadly than that for now) will be renewed and consummated. Christ is our paradigm. He is risen, We shall be raised. He is glorified. We shall be glorified like him. He remains true man, consubstantial with us. So we shall be true humans again, rid of the corruption and death which has been ours since the fall.

I have been writing of “gender bending” because that is the phrase we use but properly gender is a grammatical category. God created two sexes and only two: male and female. It is part of the natural, created, divinely ordained order that those two sexes remain distinct. How that happens in a given culture may vary. In our culture dressing up nine-year old boys as girls may seem cute. It may create tension and dramatic and comedic possibilities but it is not healthy for children and it implicitly denies an evident natural truth and a truth revealed in Scripture: males and females are different by nature. Everyone and especially Christians ought to observe that difference. In re-asserting the distinction between the sexes we need not assume Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen as the paradigm for masculinity but neither should we default to Pee Wee Herman as the new normal.


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  1. “Is not interesting that even after Obergefell, after the Department of Education sought to normalize transgender behavior among school children, that the writers think that we need more catechesis about how normal it is for boys to act and carry themselves like girls?”

    They will continue to push it because they want us to go beyond accepting it; they want us to celebrate it.

    • It is like our world is descending into lawless anarchy. Is it a judgment from God that He allows it because we are going against His spiritual, moral, and natural laws, as we pursue the idol worship of the Me god?

  2. When I was still in school and was taught about the Salem witch trials, and all the craziness around it, I couldn’t wrap my head around it, why people could believe such things. Today when I see today ideas such that abortion or this new transgenderism fade being all the rage, I realize people aren’t much different now as they were back then.

    Also, their is a girl in my school district that identifies as an actual plant. So the school has gone and installed special lights above her desk as school so she can receive the proper lighting. No I’m not lying about that.

    • I’m not sure what district is called because I won’t be sending my kids to public school anyways, but a school in my district in London, Ontario. I’ve never seen her, but the parents at work told me this a month or two ago.

  3. Great post, Dr. Clark. In particular, the phrase “social catechesis” jolted me. Now, that is a profound thought–and could be fodder for an entire book (series). Thanks again for making your thoughts public.

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